Saturday, June 18, 2011

Marilyn: Forever Blonde

In Tommy, the ever-naughty director Ken Russell postulated a religion worshiping Marilyn Monroe Eric Clapton (who was God, after all) leading a procession of devotees in pouty Marilyn masks, obligingly wheeling a massive icon of Marilyn from that scene in The Seven Year Itch, her skirt now blown up for all eternity. Over the top, yeah, but not far from the truth. Like Elvis in years to come, Marilyn's death made her larger than life.

Sunny Thompson does her best to make Marilyn life-sized in Marilyn: Forever Blonde, her one-woman show at the Asolo Rep.

The script behind the play was written by her husband, Greg Thompson, who put the words on paper before he knew her and saw Sunny as the perfect Marilyn the second he met her.

All the words in Thompson's script are Marilyn's own, sifted from press releases, interviews, and tapes given to psychiatrists.

What emerges is what we'd expect but might not want to face. Marilyn (aka Norma Jean) invented blonde ambition. An orphan and an outsider, she climbed the Hollywood ladder against the odds. For women in the 50s and 60s, the rungs of that ladder were a series of casting couches. Marilyn obliged, because she knew she was good. She wasn't alone. She made it to the top, because she really was good. Then she fell apart.

And it seems to me, you lived your life like a candle in the wind ...

Ah, shut up, Elton. We all know how Marilyn's story ends dead at age 36 from too many pills. Though the jury's still out on whether her overdose was suicide.

Sunny Thompson makes you want to cry at Marilyn's tragically wasted potential. She gets into Marilyn's sexy, seductive skin and makes the audience itch. From the breathless delivery to the undulating walk, she's got Marilyn's surface mannerisms down and the beating heart behind it all.

It's a fine performance and a performance from the heart.

Still, there’s something missing. The script behind her performance doesn’t capture Marilyn’s mind. Blame her husband for that though I’m sure he had the best intentions. Greg Thompson boiled down his script from the words Marilyn said or printed in public. He didn’t put any words in Marilyn’s mouth or try to read her mind. Oddly, that “honesty” created a subtle dishonesty. Marilyn’s public words were part of her deliberately crafted public face. But the playwright took them at face value.

Bad move. Obviously, there’s a difference between the person and the persona even if it draws on elements of an actor’s real personality. Jackie Gleason was not Ralph Kramden. The real Marilyn Monroe wasn’t the naïve sex bomb we saw on screen.

But Thompson’s play doesn’t separate “Marilyn” the character from the real-world Marilyn who invented her. That breathless, vulnerable, naïve sex bomb was Marilyn’s creation. That character is both drop-dead sexy and a parody of male notions of an all-American sex goddess. It’s a brilliant creation – and a brilliant fiction. Thompson doesn’t look past the fiction to the intelligence behind it.

Marilyn Monroe was a comic genius. That’s what I wanted to see and that's what's missing.

I'm tired of feeling sorry for Marilyn. I want to applaud her for the genius that she was, damn it right up there with Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and all the rest of them.

This is not to trash Sunny Thompson's performance. She channels Marilyn onstage in an uncanny way. But I wanted to see the mask drop if just for a second. It's a lifetime performance. I'm still haunted by it. What I saw was great. But it's what I've seen before in the standard liturgy of the Eternal Church of the Blessed Marilyn. Sunny, with respect, tell the playwright to do a rewrite. Break the idol. Reveal the mind.

Next time, show me something I didn't see.

Marilyn: Forever Blonde
Through July 10
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

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